ONE LAST TIME
By Jeff Robinson (3,070 words)
(published e-zine, www.wouldthatitwere.com, Apr-June 2001)

Professor Moriarty held the lantern in front of him as he hurried along the dark tunnel. He tried to be quiet, but the rattling of the items in his carpetbag and the rustling of his clothes seemed distressingly loud. Pausing to catch his breath, he listened to see if anyone was following him. Though he closed his eyes and concentrated, all he could hear was the beating of his own heart and the rasping of his breath.

Damn that Sherlock Holmes, he thought. What was he doing here anyway? If he’d discovered the information I planted back at the museum, he should be more than a day west of London by now.

Moriarty adjusted the heavy satchel and started down the tunnel, once again. Piles of broken stone and debris slowed his progress. The tunnel wound down and he almost slipped several times on the slippery slope of the uneven floor.

Holmes knows me too well, he decided. We’ve crossed paths too many times and he’s learned to anticipate me. The information I left for him must have been too obvious and he recognized it as a false clue.

He stumbled and bumped the wall. The priceless Shanshadar stones inside his bags rang like tiny chimes. Moriarty smiled to himself. I suppose we both know each other too well. There was no reason to suspect Holmes would discover my smuggling operations here in the abandoned coastal mines above Lowestoft. This far north of London, I should have been safe. Still, I had this escape route prepared. With luck it will be an hour or more before he discovers it and he tries to follow me.

Professor Moriarty slowed down as he sensed the widening of the tunnel ahead. Stopping, he raised his lantern and peered ahead into the darkness. Before him, the tunnel abruptly ended and the ground in front of him fell away, opening to a large chasm more than forty feet across. Leaning forward, he held the lantern high, but the flame of the light was too dim to illuminate the depths that stretched more than a hundred feet below. Listening closely, he could barely hear the distant sound of rushing of water at the bottom of the dark abyss.

Years ago, when the mine was still in operation, this section of tunnel had collapsed to reveal an underground river that rushed to the sea. This side branch was unused long before the mine had ceased its operations. It didn’t even appear on any of the old company charts.

He set his lantern down and reached up to find the rope and pulley he’d had installed. As he pulled on the rope, the pulley creaked noisily. Though it took considerable effort, the heavy metal cart that hung from the rope slowly worked its way toward him. In moments, Moriarty had loaded his bag into the basket and carefully climbed aboard.

The rope sagged threateningly and he found himself concentrating with all his might to ignore the emptiness that opened beneath him. Methodically pulling on the rope, he slowly worked his way across the chasm. Once on the other side, he held onto the rope and tossed his bag onto the nearby ledge. Then he unceremoniously tumbled out of the cart and lay on the ground, gasping. His heart pounded loudly in his chest and he thought to himself. There. That might not stop Holmes, but it will surely slow him down. As a matter of fact, with that fool Watson in tow, this may stop him from following me altogether.

Reaching down to pick up his carpetbag, he paused and glanced back across the chasm at the dark tunnel on the other side. Smiling, he decided this was the ideal opportunity to deal with that meddling fool Holmes once and for all. Pulling out a pocket watch from his vest pocket, he opened it and read the time. It was ten minutes to four. He still had plenty of time to make his getaway. Indeed, there was plenty of time to tarry here a while and wait a while.

Moriarty closed the cover of the lantern, darkening it, and set it out of sight around the bend of the tunnel. Then he pulled on the rope to return the cart back to the other side, where Holmes would find it. When he was done, he took a comfortable seat on the ground and waited for his nemesis. Sitting in the dark, he revised his plans. Most of the valuables that he’d stolen from London’s museums over the past several months were all crated up back in the main tunnels, awaiting transfer to prospective buyers on the continent. All he’d managed to get away with were a few religious relics from the India exhibit.

Opening his bag, he pulled out one of the two Shanshadar stones. Of the assortment of minor treasures he carried, these were the most precious. There were only three known to exist and he had two of them. They would fetch a handsome price and would be more than sufficient for him to rebuild his operations somewhere else. As he looked at the stone, he was surprised to see it glowed with a strange preternatural blue light. He hadn’t noticed the glow before.

Musing, he reflected on the legend of the stones. They were of indeterminate origin, but legends about them went back more than three thousand years. They purportedly had magical properties and, if one knew how, they could be used to alter reality, to ‘unweave Mara’s Web’.

Mara, the Indian goddess of illusion, could allegedly create false images so real that they could even fool the other gods. Her greatest illusion, of course, was supposed to be the world itself. This illusion, Mara’s Web, distracted mankind and blinded men to the true nature of reality. These stones were allegedly Mara’s tears and had been hidden for centuries and cherished as religious relics.

Shoving the stones back into the bag and stared back at the tunnel opening opposite him.

Damn, he thought again. Why does Holmes have to interfere with everything I do? Why doesn’t he bother someone else? If he worked for Scotland Yard, I could understand, but his obsession with me seems personal. Even as he pondered the matter, however, he knew the answer. Holmes was as bored as Moriarty was and there was really no one else capable of giving him a real challenge. As much as he hated the egotistical interloper, Moriarty had to admit he held a grudging respect for Holmes. No one else even came close to being a match for him.

After about ten minutes, a noise from the other side of the chasm attracted his attention.

“I say, Holmes, is it much further? Why are we blundering down this dingy little tunnel anyway?”

Moriarty smiled to himself. It was that fool Watson that Holmes always kept around. If Sherlock had any weakness, it was that idiot associate of his. “Because Moriarty was present when we arrived here at the mines. You saw his carriage outside and you know he left his contact at the docks a mere hour ago. He can’t be more than a few minutes ahead of us and this is the only path he could have taken. Now hurry up, Watson, or he’ll get away.”

Holmes sounded stressed and nearly as frustrated with Watson’s constant whining as Moriarty. Gloating, the professor sat quietly in the dark and waited for the right moment to come. “Ah, what do we have here?” said Holmes, as he reached the end of the tunnel. Watson appeared with a lantern and Moriarty’s two pursuers were brightly silhouetted on the other side of the underground divide. “An underground river and a convenient conveyance, undoubtedly for Moriarty’s escape.”

Moriarty heard Holmes tug on the rope and the rusty pulley squeaked loudly. “Yes, the rope and supports are sound,” Holmes said. “It should be adequate to hold both of us. Quickly Watson, get in the cart. I’ll steady it for you.”

“What?” exclaimed Watson. “You want me to get in that flimsy little thing?”

“Yes, and don’t dawdle. Moriatry is getting further away every moment,” Holmes replied.

There was grunting and groaning, presumably as Watson maneuvered his bulk into the cart. Moriarty waited, but heard a pause as Holmes hesitated. “You can’t get away, Moriarty,” Holmes shouted across the chasm. “I know you’re there waiting and listening in the dark. I’ve already notified Inspector Lestrad at Scotland Yard. He should be arriving momentarily. I even left a note at your headquarters behind us informing him about this little bolthole of yours and advising him to get his men positioned at the base of the cliffs, where this tunnel undoubtedly exits. You can’t escape and you’re only delaying the inevitable. Why don’t you admit defeat and give up now?”

Bile rose in Moriarty’s throat. How dare Holmes presume to know he was still here? There was absolutely no way he should suspect he would interrupt his own escape to loiter here in the dark.

With considerable effort, Moriarty restrained himself and remained silent. After perhaps a full minute, Watson spoke. “Is Moriarty really over there, Holmes? How can you tell whether or not he’s sitting there in the dark over there waiting for us to follow in this deathtrap?”

“He’s not there, Watson. I assure you. I know Professor Moriarty far better than you think. If he were waiting there, there’s no way he could have resisted responding to my challenge and my insult. His ego is too great to permit that type of affront. I was just taking the precaution, in case he was desperate enough to wait for us to follow him.”

“You mean it’s safe to cross over then?” asked Watson.

“Most assuredly,” answered Holmes.

A few seconds later, Holmes joined Watson in the cart and together they started to pull themselves across the cavern. Moriarty was fuming. He was so mad that, for a second time, he almost shouted at Holmes. Waiting silently until the cart was halfway across the abyss, Moriarty stood quickly and grasped the rope, abruptly stopping the cart’s forward progress.

“So my ego is too great to withstand your insults, is it, Holmes? You think I haven’t the discipline or self control to wait for you to make a fatal mistake?” he said.

Holmes did not respond, but Watson cried, “Oh, my God. What do we do now, Holmes?”

Reaching with his other hand, Moriarty pulled a folding knife from his pocket. Then he set the knife to the thick rope, which held up the metal cart and its two occupants, and started sawing at it. Even as he sawed at the rope, he heard Holmes start to scramble out of the cart and attempt to climb up to the rope.

Too late, he thought. The rope separated and the cart tumbled into the darkness. Watson dropped the lantern and flailed wildly. Moriarty watched the two men fall helplessly into the depths below.

Watson screamed like a child all the way down. Holmes never made a sound. There was loud crash and the sound of metal breaking on rock. The light of the lantern sputtered out, but not before he verified the broken bodies of Holmes and Watson on the distant jagged rocks. Then there was only darkness and the sound of rushing water, once more.

Moriarty stood quietly and reflected on his victory. At last, he thought. Sherlock Holmes will never again bother me. After a few moments, the excitement of dispatching his arch-nemesis faded and the sweet taste of victory turned sour in his mouth.

It’s sad, he thought. No one else ever challenged me. No one else understood what I was doing, even when I was doing it right under their noses. Opening his bag, he examined his precious religious relics. The excitement of selling them now seemed diminished. Without the thrill of the chase, without Holmes nipping at his heals, it wasn’t going to be nearly as enjoyable. As he mused, he realized he was even going to miss Dr. Watson. Indeed, confounding Watson was the most fun of all. Watson typified the erudite ignorance of society’s elite, the fools who were waiting to be fleeced, but who were so stupid that someone like Holmes had to explain everything to them.

Damn, he thought once more. What have I done?

Standing somberly, he looked down into the abyss. Reaching into his bag, he grasped one of the dim glowing stones and held it out in front of him. Its faint light flicked as if it held a tiny candle flame trapped in the crystal. Its feeble light now seemed as cold and joyless as his victory.

In defeating Holmes, he’d denied himself the enjoyment of endless future victories. With Holmes dead, there was no one left to appreciate how truly brilliant he was. From now on, there would be no one to explain his genius to the dullards at Scotland Yard. His successes and his fame would now disappear in obscurity. Squeezing the Shanshadar stone in his hands in fury and frustration that slowly grew within him, he regretted exacting his final vengeance.

In a fit of rage he threw the stone to the ground and it shattered into a thousand pieces. There was a brilliant blast of blue light and he saw tendrils and snakes of energy weaving and twisting before him. Like living lightning, the blue strands expanded and grew. Everything they touched turned brilliant blue and then disappeared. Entire sections of the cavern walls vanished as if consumed. One undulating ribbon of light reached for him and he backed involuntarily to the tunnel wall. It drove itself into his chest and the world disappeared in a blinding flash.

***** Moriarty found himself sitting on the ground in the dark. Glancing down he found himself holding an open bag and staring at the single glowing Shanshadar stone inside. He looked at his watch. It was ten minutes to four.

But that’s impossible, he thought. Glancing up, he noted the rope and the metal cart in place just the way it had been minutes before. Checking his watch again, he wondered if he could be hallucinating. Am I imagining that everything is as it was ten minutes ago, or did I fall asleep and only dream of killing Holmes and Watson?

Before he could consider the situation further, there was a sound from the other side of the chasm.

“I say, Holmes, is it much further? Why are we blundering down this dingy little tunnel anyway?”

It’s Watson, he thought. Everything’s happening as it did before. It’s happening all over again.

Moriarty frowned and remembered the Shanshadar stone he’d broken. The stories about the stones said they could alter reality and unweave Mara’s web. Had he somehow gone back in time? Was reality replaying itself once more? He listened carefully and, sure enough, Holmes replied just as he had before.

“Because Moriarty was present when we arrived here at the mines. You saw his carriage outside and you know he left his contact at the docks a mere hour ago. He can’t be more than a few minutes ahead of us and this is the only path he could have taken. Now hurry up, Watson, or he’ll get away.”

Moriarty smiled. It was true. Events were replaying themselves. Reality had unraveled itself somehow and was reweaving itself into place once more. He’d been given the opportunity to re-experience the events of the past few minutes. He knew what was going to happen and what he’d already done. Did he have the power to play the scene differently?

“Ah, what do we have here?” said Holmes. Watson approached with his lantern and Moriarty saw the two of them brightly silhouetted on their side of the deep underground ravine. “An underground river and a convenient conveyance, undoubtedly for Moriarty’s escape.”

As before, Holmes tugged on the rope and the rusty pulley squeaked loudly. “Yes, the rope and supports are sound. It should be adequate to hold both our weights. Quickly Watson, get in the cart. I’ll steady it for you.”

“What?” cried Watson. “You want me to get in that flimsy little thing?”

“Yes, and don’t dawdle. Moriatry is probably getting further away every moment,” Holmes replied.

Watson clamored into the cart and Holmes waited for a moment.

“You can’t get away, Moriarty,” Holmes shouted. “I know you’re there waiting and listening in the dark. I’ve already notified Inspector Lestrad at Scotland Yard. He should be arriving momentarily. I even left a note at your headquarters behind us informing him about this little bolthole of yours and advising him to get his men positioned at the base of the cliffs where this side tunnel undoubtedly exits. You can’t escape and you’re only delaying the inevitable. Why don’t you admit defeat and give up now?”

Moriarty smiled. It would be so simple to kill Holmes and Watson again, but that would be no fun. He cried out across the gulf, “You’re a fool, Holmes.

I could have easily waited here in silence until you and your incompetent colleague were suspended midway over this abyss. Instead, I will give you a gift. I give you your lives.” Laughing manically, he used his knife to cut the rope holding the metal basket. Watson scrambled franticly out of the cart and barely made it to safety on the ledge beside Holmes before the rope parted and the cart plunged into the darkness below.

“You can’t get away, you know,” cried Holmes. “I will find you and catch you eventually.”

“Try if you wish, my dear Sherlock,” replied Moriarty. “Indeed, I sincerely hope you will. Our paths will cross again, I promise. Until we meet, remember what a generous man I can be.”

Tipping his hat, he turned and hurried down the tunnel. When he was out of sight, however, he stopped to listen to the exchange between Watson and Holmes.

“How could you tell he was actually over there, Holmes? How did you know he was sitting in the dark waiting for us?”

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” he said. “It’s what I would have done.”

Turning quickly, Holmes headed back down the tunnel they’d come from. Calling back over his shoulder, he shouted, “Hurry Watson. We have to get back and explain everything to Lestrad before Professor Moriarty gets away. We may still have a chance to catch him.”

Moriarty grinned silently and picked up his lantern. He opened it and hurried to the tunnel exit at the base of the cliffs where a small boat waited. As he walked, Professor James Moritarty reached into his bag and gently touched the remaining Shanshadar stone. Yes, he thought to himself. Holmes and I will meet again someday and we will have at least one last time together.

 

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